Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Too High Society

Another recent, rather obscure You Tube find was a 1963 film called ‘Ladies Who Do.’ Despite not being particularly well known (I’d never heard of it before anyway) it has a cast of some of the most familiar faces from 1960s TV and film.  Robert Morley, Harry H Corbett, Peggy Mount, Dandy Nicholls, Jon Pertwee, Ron Moody, Miriam Karlin – they’re all there.

Trying to think of a way to summarise the plot is actually quite difficult.  Which may be why the film has sunk into obscurity!  The ‘Ladies Who Do’ are a group of four char ladies who work in fancy London offices.  Using discarded notes and messages that they retrieve on their rounds, they feed information to Robert Morley’s character. By anticipating major moves among companies, he speculates successfully on the Stock Exchange and makes them all tons of money.  One of the businessmen that the ladies clean for (Corbett) turns out to be behind a scheme to knock down their street to make way for a luxury high rise development.  They launch themselves into a battle against the scheme, using their new found capital as muscle, finally triumphing and inviting Corbett’s character into their partnership.  I may be oversimplifying a little there, but you get the general idea.

One of the themes of the film – that of the ruthless businessman taking away people’s homes for speculative building – is an interesting snapshot of the time.  It just so happened that shortly after I watched the film, I reached a confirmation page in one of the books that I was working my way through.  Jonathan Glancey’s ‘20th Century Architecture’ takes the reader through 100 years of prominent buildings worldwide.  On page 215 we reach 1964 (the year after this film was made) and the construction of central London’s Economist Buildings, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson (best known for their flats in Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar).  In his description of the Economist Buildings, Glancey’s words are very telling in relation to this film:

“At the time of their construction, the Centre of London was being ruined by a rash of vile and foolish office blocks designed to make as much money for developers as quickly as possible before someone noticed that something was going horribly wrong.  London’s powerful conservation lobby gained it’s teeth at this time…”

So, like ‘Left, Right and Centre’ (See previous post), this is a commentary on the times in the guise of a tongue-in-cheek entertainment.  I think that many of us associate the high rise boom in the 1960s with slum clearances and redevelopment of World War Two bomb sites.  But this film lifts the lid on a seedier side.  The street up for demolition in ‘Ladies Who Do’ looks to be a perfectly sound Victorian street of terraced houses. Not back-to-backs or slum courtyards but sturdily built, loved homes.  People are given little choice but to move out to alternative accommodation, away from long term neighbours, friends and family.  They are bribed out with payments that may seem a lot to manual workers, but will soon run out.  Those that dig their heels in are subject to bullying tactics.  Glancey’s comment on money grabbing developers during the early 1960s gives this scenario the ring of truth.

Again, I also catch a glimpse of the modern predicament.  Developers are too keen to fill our city centres with expensive business accommodation, while the people who are meant to work in them are pushed further out into the suburbs.  From here, people on the lower rungs of the pay scale, such as cleaners, struggle to pay the commuting costs from their cheaper out of town estates.  And as fuel prices climb, more and more people are going to find themselves in the struggling bracket.  Sometimes our world seems so imbalanced.  And this film shows us how and why the scales began to tip.

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